Unity day in Ukraine: ‘I think there’s only a 1% chance of something happening’

Iya Leskova (left) and Alyona Davidova in central Kyiv on Wednesday, when Ukraine marked “unity day” as a sign of defiance towards the threat of a new attack by Russia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

A few steps from Maidan square in the heart of Kyiv, epicentre of the 2014 revolution that turned Ukraine to the West and away from Moscow, Iya Leskova and Alyona Davidova were not going to let fears of a new Russian attack spoil their “unity day” plans.

“There is some concern in the air, of course, but generally everything is fine,” Leskova said on Wednesday, as the US and Nato warned that they saw no evidence that Russia was making good on claims to be withdrawing troops and armour from close to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any country is 100 per cent safe but I think there’s only a one per cent chance of something happening,” she added, reflecting the stoical approach of many Ukrainians to western warnings that a major new Russian assault could be imminent.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced this week that the inaugural unity day would be held to show national solidarity and defiance in the face of a possible attack that US and British western intelligence suggested might come on Wednesday.

Towns and cities across the country of 41 million raised its flag, sang its anthem and held concerts and other events, while in the capital, Kyiv, Ukrainians unfurled a 200m-long banner in the national stadium.

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People sing the Ukrainian national anthem in front of Independence monument to mark the newly-created “unity day” on Wednesday in Kyiv. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The blue-and-yellow flag appeared on many buildings and in offices and apartment windows around Kyiv, but its residents went to work as normal and continued their daily routines, even as international tension around Ukraine continued to crackle.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that “Russia maintains a massive invasion force ready to attack, with high-end capabilities from Crimea to Belarus.

“We have heard signs from Moscow about readiness to continue diplomatic efforts, but so far we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground. On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues the military build-up,” he added

Recalling the post-revolutionary upheaval of 2014 that Russia exploited to seize Crimea and foment a war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Kyiv resident Leskova said Ukraine and its military were “much stronger now – lots of things have changed for the better here.

“We haven’t made any emergency plans. We don’t intend to leave Kyiv.”

The Kremlin has threatened to resort to “military-technical” means if the West refuses to meet sweeping security demands that the US and Nato say are unacceptable. At the same time, Russia insists that its forces are merely conducting drills near Ukraine and it accuses the West of using “war propaganda” to fuel tension.

“There’s what Russia says. And then there’s what Russia does. And we haven’t seen any pullback of its forces. We continue to see critical units moving toward the border, not away from the border,” said US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

“I don’t believe it will happen,” Davidova in Kyiv said of a potential new attack.

“It will be interesting to see how unity day is marked,” added Leskova. “But we have our own plans – we’re off to a museum and then the theatre.”